What a difference a year makes!
Barely a year ago Ukraine President Zelensky and leaders from the West were pronouncing the imminent defeat of Russia in its war with Ukraine. At that time, Russian setbacks in the battlefield, heavy casualties and military disarray were seen as forcing Russian President Putin to sue for peace and to withdraw from its occupation of the territories in the Crimea region which had provoked the decision to invade Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Western sanctions, supplemented by those of its allies – notably Japan, South Korea and Singapore in Asia – had made it costly for Russia to finance the war without hurting the Russian economy. Ukraine, on the other hand, was the recipient of an unprecedented bonanza of foreign assistance, both military and non military. This assistance was last estimated at US$233 billion
The United States, NATO and Zelensky expectation was that the humiliating defeat for Russia would lead to regime change in Russia. Western media at that time continually pushed the narrative that Putin would be unable to survive if he lost the war he had instigated.
The preferred Western scenario was for an anti Putin coup from either the Russian elite or the military. This would result in a domestic political crisis and the emergence of a less nationalistic new leader. Developments related to the leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia’s para military private sector ally in fighting in Ukraine, and the subsequent deterioration in his relationship with Putin, and plane crash death gave high hope that this could happen at any time.
A related scenario was for the Russian leader to suddenly die or be toppled in a coup. Such a happening would leave Russia destabilised and unable to maintain domestic stability and military presence in Ukraine. Any new leadership that succeeded Putin, while still nationalistic and anti-Western, would be less committed to continuing war in Ukraine and the negative effects on Russian economy and society. This scenario could then result in a pull-back of the Russian military and a negotiated end to the conflict.
Both these options are still on the table for the West though they appear very unlikely to happen without clandestine preparation.
Current Positions of Ukraine and Russia
So what is the actual situation now in respect of the war and the likelihood of a Putin and Russian surrender?
Firstly, the prediction of a Russian military loss has not taken place. A much touted Ukrainian offensive has failed amidst finger pointing within the Ukraine and Western side as who is to be blamed. Zaluzhnyi, the highest rank Ukrainian military commander, in a much publicised interview, recently noted that a military stalemate had emerged in the war. For this, he was rebuked by Zelensky and ordered not to engage in non military affairs.
Instead of the Russian leadership facing problems of unity, it is the Ukraine side that is experiencing division and disagreement over war strategy. Meantime, leaked Pentagon documents provide a pessimistic US view of the state of the war. Highlighting weaknesses in Ukraine’s weaponry and air defences, the papers predict a stalemate in the war for months to come.
And perhaps, most important of all, it is not only the Ukraine side that is suffering from war fatigue. NATO countries and the US have seen a fall in public support for Zelensky and growing objection to increasing military and financial assistance to Ukraine for what also appears a corrupt ridden and lost cause.
From the Russian side, Putin has emerged more confident than ever. In the initial days after the disorder in the Wagner forces under Prigozhin in June 2023, Western media had played up the news that Putin had been severely, perhaps fatally, weakened. But that turned out to be Western spin.
Recently Putin announced his intention to run for president again in the 2024 election, a move that will keep him in power until at least 2030. The coming March election appears a formality for him. There is no strong rival candidate and even if one shows up, Putin is certain to win. The latest polls in October 2023 show that 80 percent or eight out of ten Russians approve of their President. The popularity level was five percent higher than in September 2022, when the figure declined following the announcement of a partial mobilisation.
It should be noted that at age 71 years, Putin is younger than Biden or Trump, the frontrunner candidates for the coming US presidential election. Whoever wins on the American side will have to deal with the inescapable fact that Putin will remain in political power longer than them as well as is being sustained by the support of the great majority of Russians who have confidence in Putin’s leadership of the country and war against Ukraine.
What does Putin want in Ukraine? Answers to these were provided by Putin during his annual press conference, in which Russian and foreign journalists, as well as members of the public quizzed him on a wide range of subjects including Western sanctions against Russia, the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts, Moscow’s relations with the US and its allies, and global economic developments.
On Ukraine, he made it clear there would be no peace until Russia achieves its goals, which he insists remains unchanged. Explaining that Moscow seeks the “deNazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine” as well as “neutral status” for the country, he told his audience and the rest of the world that peace will come as soon as these goals are reached,
It is up to Ukraine, the US and NATO now to decide what should be their next move in response to this unambiguous stance from someone who is possibly the most popular Russian political leader in the last 100 years and who leads a nation with a historical record of endurance and stamina in wars despite the most adverse factors against it.